A Touch of Stardust: A Novel

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9780385539043: A Touch of Stardust: A Novel

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker comes a blockbuster novel that takes you behind the scenes of the filming of Gone with the Wind, while turning the spotlight on the passionate romance between its dashing leading man, Clark Gable, and the blithe, free-spirited actress Carole Lombard. 

When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana, for Hollywood, she never imagines she’ll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress fromJulie’s provincial Midwestern hometown. The young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, but the only job Julie’s able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick, who is busy burning through directors, writers, and money as he films Gone with the Wind.
     Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. Julie’s access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable, who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler. 
     Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio because Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blond employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole’s mouth, and—as their friendship grows—Julie soon finds she doesn’t want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie’s model for breaking free of the past.
     In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and offscreen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny façade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance her career aspirations and her own budding romance with the outsized personalities and overheated drama on set. Vivid, romantic, and filled with Old Hollywood details, A Touch of Stardust will entrance, surprise, and delight.

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About the Author:

KATE ALCOTT is the pseudonym for journalist Patricia O’Brien, who has written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. As Kate Alcott, she is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell. She lives in Washington, D.C. The many stories shared by her late husband, Frank Mankiewicz, who grew up in a legendary film family, helped her bring Old Hollywood to life.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER   4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
January  26,  1939 
 
 
 
              "Nothing nervous about this happy crowd, I’d say,” murmured Doris, surveying the field where she and dozens of others stood waiting. Her speech had its usual cynical tone, delivered with a roll of the eyes and a wry, impatient twist of the mouth—not quite a smirk. It occurred to Julie that Doris sounded a little too much like the wisecracking, flip Rosalind Russell. Maybe it wasn’t just coincidence. Lots of girls here were walking around emulating some star they wished they could be. Why not tough, sexy Doris? Thinking about it made her less intimidating, if not more likable.
Still, she was right. A roll of jittery chatter was threading through the huddled crowd of people on the edge of the Back Forty.
Selznick had invited everybody who worked at the studio to watch the “festivities” of the first day of shooting, a word that had produced a fair number of snickers among those who knew how fraught with problems this venture was. You could see it in the director George Cukor’s rigid stance. He held himself immobile in the restless crowd, arms folded, a set expression on his face.
Julie scanned the crowd, trying to pick out the critics and journalists, several of whom looked enlivened by the prospect for disas- ter. It wasn’t hard to recognize the columnist Hedda Hopper. She had the alert, bright-eyed face of a parrot as she darted here and there; her lips were heavy with bright-red lipstick; her eyes—lined in black makeup that looked as permanent as cement—missing nothing, peering out from under a flamboyantly feathered hat.
“Look at her glare at Louella,” Doris said, amused. “Probably thinks she muscled herself in to get a better spot for watching the filming. She’ll have something to say about that in tomorrow’s column. Those two could kill each other.”
Julie’s gaze turned to Louella Parsons. By contrast, she looked like a proper matron heading for a proper afternoon tea. She was much shorter than Hedda, her plump body encased in something made of heavy, dark wool with glittering no-nonsense gold buttons the size of Ping-Pong balls. Her face was set on dignified affability, but her eyes looked like small rocks.
Julie knew this was the one to watch. Louella had hinted in her column today that the careers of several important people working on Gone with the Wind were about to be destroyed. It was a tantalizing, airy warning, meant to send shivers down the back of anyone who tried to withhold a scoop from her.
So that was in the buzz circulating through the crowd—who was at risk?
And, Lord, there was the script. Everyone knew that was a disaster. Andy had said it was literally a mountain of paper with colored tabs marking the contributions of dozens of writers. The rumor going through the crowd was that Selznick was bringing in Ben Hecht for yet another rewrite. And what about the noises from the Screen Writers Guild? Were they really going to announce a strike?
And on it went. The less prominent reporters strained to hear it all, looking like fluttering crows as they hovered close to the cam- eras, trying to eavesdrop on Selznick’s instructions to the crew.
Suddenly there was a furious shout.
“Look, there’s Gable,” Rose whispered. “What now?”
An angry-looking Clark Gable, jacket flapping, came striding toward Selznick, ignoring everyone in his path. “Those signs come
down now,” he shouted.
“What signs?” Selznick said, obviously startled.
Gable pointed to a nearby knoll where a long line of portable toilets stood ready. The usual necessity for movies shot with hun- dreds of extras, they had been placed a distance from the cameras, winding down the knoll like dominoes in a row. They were painted a dull green, a color that discreetly blended into the landscape.
Except for the signs.
In large block letters, they declared their instructions on each toilet: white  only, read the first one; negro only, read the second. And on down the line, the declaration instructions repeated in calm symmetry.
“Where’s the property manager?” Gable demanded. “David, I’m off this movie if those signs don’t come down.”
Selznick stared—and swore. He threw down the clipboard in his hands. A confused silence fell on the crowd.
“Who the hell put those up?” he yelled. His face was almost purple. “We’re not in the Deep South, we’re in Culver City, California!” The reporters were scribbling fast, and the photographers were scrambling to take pictures of the toilets. In the jostling for position, Hedda lost her hat and sputtered in outrage. The “festivities” had
taken an unexpected turn.
All Julie could think was, how could it be that no one had noticed? Cukor jumped into action. “I don’t know who authorized that,
but yank ’em down,” he ordered a maintenance crewman. “Right now, before one foot of film is shot.” He cast a quick look at Gable. “Thanks, Clark,” he said.
Julie now saw a small cluster of extras dressed as slaves standing to the side. As she learned later, one of them had gone up to Gable’s dressing room, knocked on the door, and asked him to intervene. This surely took courage.
“They’re no dumbbells,” Doris chortled, nodding at the group. “They know Selznick can’t fire them and replace them with Mexicans—not for this movie.”
“Okay, folks,” shouted Selznick through a bullhorn. “We’ve got that stupidity corrected; now let’s get on with making a movie.” Julie craned to see Andy. She caught a glimpse of him staring at the scene as the signs were ripped down, a slight smile on his face. He saw her and gave a quick thumbs-up. Then he was back in conversation with the lighting crew, checking his clipboard, calling for the sound people. It was fun to watch him. He moved so easily, genially, talking to someone, scribbling a reply to a message, joking with the messenger, listening intently—and making it all look so relaxed.
Gable stayed briefly in place, the fury on his face fading into a kind of vague puzzlement, as if he wondered where he was. He had made no secret that he would not hang around for filming Gone with the Wind’s inaugural scene. Then, frowning, he turned on his heel and strode back to his dressing room.
“Julie honey, David’s got one reluctant Rhett Butler, and he’ll stay away as much as he can,” Carole had said with a sigh earlier that morning.
Selznick’s shouted order  accelerated everything. Cameramen were wheeling their cameras into place. Gaffers raced about check- ing electrical equipment; soundmen adjusted their instruments; sec- retaries were scribbling notes and running errands.
Julie went on tiptoe, peering at Tara. The first scene to be shot would be the opening one of the movie. Scarlett was to sit on the steps of her grand Southern home, flirting with two of her swains. She was to pout when they spoiled the mood by telling her that war was coming—and they were enlisting.
Vivien Leigh, escorted by George Cukor, was already draping herself carefully on the steps of Tara. He held her hand, gently mov- ing her into position. She leaned her head back against a pillar, lis- tening to his soothing words, giving small, birdlike nods of assent. A makeup person armed with a soft powdered brush, intent on reduc- ing the shine from the lights on Vivien Leigh’s face, dabbed at the actress’s nose. A wardrobe assistant fussed over her flowered muslin gown, fluffing the rich folds of material and spreading them wide. “I can’t breathe in this corset,” Leigh complained loudly, but no one was paying attention.
Finally, all was ready.
“Quiet on set!” a production assistant bellowed. Looking quite solemn, he lifted a black-and-white clapperboard high. On it was scrawled in chalk:
SCENE ONE, TAKE ONE—GONE WITH THE WIND
He clapped the boards together, producing a sharp, commanding sound that brought immediate quiet. Gone with the Wind was about to be brought to life.
 
 
Up the gravel path, across the green lawn, the cameras travel to Tara. Scarlett sits framed beautifully  on the graceful porch. Her voice is deli- ciously lilting and teasing as she begins flirting with the Tarleton twins, scolding them for their talk of war. Vivien Leigh—with her boredom and corset complaints—has disappeared. Scarlett O’Hara is sitting there now.
 
 
To Julie, all seemed perfect. To be drawn into this scene so quickly, in a way that was both the same as and yet different from when she burrowed into Margaret Mitchell’s magical book, was enthralling. The colors, the clothes, the mood—
“Cut!” Selznick barked.
Cukor glanced at Selznick in astonishment. His usual amiable smile vanished. A producer didn’t issue orders on the set: that was the job and prerogative of the director. “What’s wrong?” he said. “The scene was perfect.”
Selznick shoved his hands into his pockets and strode up to the waiting actors, frowning. “The dress isn’t right,” he said to Cukor, pulling one hand out of his pocket and flipping disdainfully at a sleeve of Scarlett’s gorgeous gown. “Call Wardrobe. I want her to wear pure white—not the same damn dress she wears to the barbecue. That’s not acceptable.”
The crowd of workers and onlookers froze.
Cukor responded levelly, but the strain showed. “David, that’s wholly unnecessary,” he said.
“I’m sorry, George. That’s how I want it.” It was Selznick’s flat-as-stone voice, the one no one dared question.
“You want to stop production for a dress?” Cukor said incredulously.
“Get Wardrobe on it,” Selznick said, then walked away before
Cukor could respond. The director stood frozen.
“So much for the celebratory first day of shooting,” said Doris in a low voice. Even she couldn’t manage her usual sardonic tone.
“All the equipment, the people, everything,” Julie said in surprise. “Everybody packs up?”
“Everybody except Cukor. He’s going to need some time to get his pride back. Selznick’s making it pretty clear already what he’s after.”
“What’s that?”
Doris’s eyes conveyed more than just a tinge of superiority. “Julie, Cukor’s the director, not Selznick. He’s the one who usually makes calls like this one. Selznick is obviously ignoring him. Setting him up.”
“Setting him up for what?”
Doris shrugged and turned to leave. “You’ll see. Better hurry on back to Lombard’s dressing room with news of Gable’s defense of the working Negro. If she doesn’t send you off to some zoo to rent an old lion, maybe you’ll be able to pick up gossip for the rest of us. Something spicy.”
“Working for Lombard is better than the mimeograph room,” Rose said loyally.
“Oh, please. Work? For Lombard?”
The two women watched Doris walk away, her long legs drawing glances from the men she passed.
“Not a wrinkle in those silk stockings, and the seams are perfectly straight. I think we’re entitled to hate her,” Rose murmured.
Julie laughed, feeling better. “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about becoming friends with her,” she said.
 
*

Andy joined Julie briefly in the commissary at lunchtime. Gloomy, he chomped away on a turkey-and-cheese sandwich, barely speaking, to the point where she pushed back her coffee and started thinking about going back to answering Carole’s mail. She was get- ting good at copying the actress’s signature—and if there were any mangy lions needed in the future, she would recommend Doris for the job.
“I’m meeting a friend for dinner tomorrow,” he said abruptly. “A novelist.”
“Anyone I would recognize?”
“Maybe. Scott Fitzgerald. He’s working on the script.” “I thought Ben Hecht—”
“Yep, him, too. Everybody. Even though Sidney Howard did a great preliminary job.”
“I’ve read The Great Gatsby,” she said.
His face relaxed for a moment into a faint smile. “I should’ve known you’d be a woman who actually reads. Pretty rare out here.”
“I can spell, too. Better than Fitzgerald.”
He laughed this time. “God, a college girl. I must be out of my mind.”
“Do you think he can help with the script?”
“He’s got some good ideas. Thinks we should use as much of Margaret Mitchell’s dialogue as possible, but cut a lot of the redun- dant material. Selznick is resisting, naturally.” Andy sighed. “I don’t know what Scott’s doing out here,” he said. “He’s got real talent, if he’d control his drinking. He should be writing novels, far from Hollywood. No reason for him to sell out.”
 
 
*
 
The next day’s shoot went well, even though Julie heard that Scar- lett’s hastily constructed white dress had to be held in place with clothespins at first and Miss Edith Head’s seamstresses would sew it up in back between takes. Julie had hoped to watch, but at Carole’s request, she worked that day from Carole’s Bel-Air home on Cloud Road. Here she would have a respectable-sized  office to handle publicity and secretarial work when Carole didn’t need her on the Selznick lot. There was plenty to do, but Julie feared life would be far less exciting.
That was before a studio messenger showed up at the door at lunchtime with a package for Gable from David Selznick.
Julie accepted the package and held it out to Gable as he came in through the back door, his trousers muddied from working in the garden he and Carole were trying to nourish.
“What the hell is this?” he said, puzzled, when she handed him the package. “Kind of heavy.” Absently, he tossed a trowel he’d been carrying onto a sleekly immaculate beige sofa. Julie picked it up quickly as he took the package into the dining room.
Silence at first. Then a barrage of curses, which brought Carole hurrying to his side.
“Selznick is crazy,” he sputtered, showing Carole the contents of the package. “Ninety-two pages of instructions on how he wants me to play Rhett Butler. What kind of maniacal character is he?”
He paced, looking worn. “He doesn’t trust me to play this stupid part,” he said.
“He’s not the director—” began Carole.
“Cukor? He’s worse,” Gable snapped. He began clawing through his pockets, pulled out a wrinkled cigarette pack, and rescued the last one. He crushed the empty pack into a ball and threw it at an ashtray. He missed.
Carole handed him a lighter, the silver one he had given her as a birthday gift.
“He’ll lavish attention on Vivien—I can see that already,” he said, inhaling deeply. “Look, it’s obvious. The man’s a fag, and I don’t like fags, and I’m never going to like him. Selznick knows that.”
He said the word so flatly. Of course, plenty of people felt the same way, but Julie couldn’t help remembering this was the same man who spoke up for the Negro extras yesterday.
“You’re not going to pull out of the movie,” Carole said quietly.

“You haven’t even done your first scene yet.”
“Presenting Scarlett with a fancy Paris hat,” he scoffed. “There are probably ten pages in this cra...

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